POLITICS: PennAve

Obama flexes executive muscle in State of the Union

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President Obama flexed executive muscle in his State of the Union address Tuesday, rolling out a series of unilateral actions in an attempt to reassert his standing in Washington and with the American public.

Obama's prime-time speech to millions of people came against the backdrop of the roughest stretch of his presidency. And eager to keep Americans from tuning him out, the president framed his executive orders as part of a “year of action” to boost job creation and combat income inequality.

“America does not stand still – and neither will I,” Obama pledged. “So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

However, many of Obama's fixes were more modest than anticipated.

The president laid out executive orders that would increase the minimum wage for federal workers on new contracts, aid the long-term unemployed in finding work, issue stricter environmental standards, expedite infrastructure projects and serve his broader goal of diminishing the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Obama's task was two-fold: establishing battle lines with Congress for upcoming clashes and convincing the public that the White House was still up to the task of tackling big-ticket items.

The president said he would unilaterally move to raise the minimum wage for workers on new federal contracts from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. Obama also called on Congress to increase the minimum wage for all workers, but the legislation faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House.

And he announced an agreement with some of the nation’s largest companies to not discriminate against the long-term unemployed.

Obama also outlined a new effort to boost retirement savings for low-income Americans. The president’s blueprint would allow individuals to accrue savings in Treasury bonds and eventually convert them to IRAs.

With his go-it-alone blueprint, however, Obama stoked Republican charges that his White House was once again engaging in executive overreach.

“We're just not going to sit here and let the president trample all over us," Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said ahead of the president's address, warning that the White House would run into a “brick wall.”

The president insisted that his hand was forced by Washington gridlock, primarily Republicans dead-set against virtually all of his legislative proposals.

After a year when his entire legislative wish list sputtered, Obama hardly laid out lofty expectations for his agenda on Capitol Hill.

Reflecting on an embarrassing gun-control defeat, Obama vowed to move to reduce violence “with or without Congress.”

Still, Obama pressed lawmakers to enact comprehensive immigration reform, as a growing number of Republicans float support for elements of a legislative package.

Not wanting to alienate the GOP on immigration, Obama struck a soft tone on the hot-button issue.

“Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted,” he said. “I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same.”

Up against November’s midterm elections, many doubt whether the White House has enough juice left to convince Republicans — and centrist Democrats — to go along with Obama’s agenda.

The president's public approval ratings remain low in the wake of the botched Obamacare rollout, revelations about National Security Agency surveillance techniques and other self-inflicted wounds that created doubts about Obama's trustworthiness and his administration's competence.

For his part, the president briefly alluded to the problem-riddled rollout of his signature domestic achievement but insisted that Americans would eventually embrace the Affordable Care Act.

“Now, I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law,” he said pointing to the 40 GOP votes to repeal Obamacare. “But I know that the American people aren’t interested in re-fighting old battles.”

As Obama’s aides point out, the public has soured even more on lawmakers than the president. The White House is banking that Obama will score points for going around an unproductive Congress.

The president championed executive actions already taken by his administration, highlighting a recent proposal that would limit carbon emissions from power plants.

“A changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods,” he said.

“The debate is settled,” he added. “Climate change is a fact.”

The congressional audience was mostly subdued during Obama’s address, as the president offered few surprising policy prescriptions.

Lawmakers, though, cheered when Obama praised House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, “the son of a barkeep,” who rose to the top post in the lower chamber. And the crowd gave first lady Michelle Obama sustained applause for her healthy-living initiatives.

Obama touted his wife’s and Boehner’s stories as examples of what can happen when low-income Americans are given the opportunity to succeed. He argued that the main priority of his remaining time in office was to increase economic mobility.

“Inequality has deepened,” he said. “Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

In the GOP response to Obama’s speech, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., though, said that for all the president’s focus on income inequality, his economic policies had hurt Americans by stifling economic growth.

“The President talks a lot about income inequality,” said McMorris Rodgers, “but the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality.”

“And with this Administration’s policies, that gap has become far too wide,” she said.

In a State of the Union devoted almost entirely to domestic policies, Obama briefly touched on the winding-down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama has been on the defensive for rising violence in the Middle East, a trend he said his administration was working to combat.

"The fact is that danger remains," he said. "While we have put al Qaeda's core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved, as al Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world."

Obama also attempted to dissuade fellow Democrats from pursuing new economic sanctions against Iran, arguing it would undermine negotiations to halt the country’s nuclear ambitions.

“Let me be clear,” Obama said. “If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it."

By far, the loudest and longest cheers of the night went to Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger, who was nearly killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Remsburg, who sat next to the first lady, is blind in one eye and learning to speak and walk again.

Obama saluted Remsburg at the end of the more than hour-long remarks, telling his audience, “My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy.”

“But for more than two hundred years,” he added, “we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress.”

This story was published at 9:52 p.m. and has been updated.

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